Higher education improves, but we remain dramatically behind in Middle and Upper-Middle Education, burning the expectations of tens of thousands of girls and boys disapplying the Constitution and wasting opportunities for a better quality of life and work

April 16, 2024 at 10:51 a.m.

To look more closely at schooling and education in the season of the primacy of the knowledge economy. And to consider it both in the light of the Constitution (Article 34 rightly wants it “open to all” and prescribes that “the able and deserving, even if without means, have the right to attain the highest grades of studies”) and in the context of the challenges posed by the phenomena of closer relevance. Demographic decline, to be offset by forward-looking policies of immigration management and social, cultural and economic inclusion. And the need for responses to the environmental and digital transition and the spread of AI (the Artificial Intelligence) in all and areas of our lives. Civic challenges. Economic systems of citizenship and building of sustainable development, with an eye toward the next generation.

How, then, is the Italian school doing? Very well, if we read the Qs World Ranking 2024, which analyzes more than 1,500 Universities and ranks ours at seventh place in the world and at second in Europe for presence in the various “Top 10” lists for both Humanities and Science Disciplines. Schooling and education, on the other hand, is still quite bad, if we look at Eurostat data on early school leaving, which see us in fifth place among EU countries for early school leaving: 11.5 percent of our young people, aged 11 to 24, are affected: a good two points above the European average (9.6 percent).

In short, higher education is improving, although we continue to have too few graduates (especially in the “Stem” subjects namely Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). But we remain dramatically behind in Middle and Upper-Middle education, burning the expectations and hopes of tens of thousands of girls and boys by disapplying the Constitution and by wasting opportunities for a better quality of life and work.

Looking closely at the data, however, we discover that some progress has been made: in 20 years, the number of young people leaving the school system with only a grade 12 or less in hand has been halved (the Italian rate was 24 percent, compared to an EU average of 17 percent). We remain among the last, it is true. But, in our commitment to catching up, we have reached the target set at the EU level for 2020, which was 16 percent: we do five points better than expected. In 2030, the target will be at 9 percent. Will we be able to achieve it? Hopefully, yes.

Still strong, however, are the regional gaps. The specialized portal Skuola.net, analyzing in detail the Eurostat data we are talking about, documents that there are ten regions with levels of dispersion below 10 percent, in line with what the EU has established: Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna, Abruzzo, Molise, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and Lazio, to get to the most virtuous regions Umbria (7.3 percent), Marche (5.8 percent) and Basilicata (5.3 percent).

But in the South, unfortunately, it is going badly: the dropout rate rises to an average of 13.8 percent, in Sardinia to 15 percent, in Campania to 16 percent, and in Sicily, a disaster, to nearly 19 percent.

These are figures that are also reflected, of course, in employment prospects. Between 2008 and 2020, the placement rate of 18-24 year olds who left school early plummeted from 51 percent to 33.2 percent.

Alarming school dropouts, then. With a worsening of the already heavy territorial and social gaps, but also a fall in the quality of education, considering what the data from the Invalsi tests reveal: at the High School leaving certificate, half of High School graduates do not reach the expected levels in at least one of the three observed disciplines (Mathematics, Italian, English). And almost one in ten students do not reach proficiency in all three subjects at the same time with peaks in the most disadvantaged social contexts, in the South: Campania, Calabria, Sicily, and Sardinia in particular.


From the point of view of future development balances, the context is burdened by the continuous emigration, just from the southern regions, of hundreds of thousands of girls and boys, the most educated, trained, enterprising, and capable of building futures.

A lopsided, unbalanced, unequal picture but far from bereft of the possibility of recovery.

It may be true that a pessimist is nothing more than a well-informed optimist, to quote Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism but it is probably equally true that, in the analysis of the current historical moment, the comparison between Italy and the rest of the countries with which we are competing reveals aptitudes and qualities that need to be better exploited, in order to make them not only and not so much a lever of national pride, but above all a hinge of political choices and conscious possibilities for development.

That is why, then, alongside the reasoned and well-founded critique of the many shortcomings of our University system, it is worthwhile to take in hand the reports of the Qs Ranking 2024 we mentioned at the beginning and highlight the good results of Sapienza in Rome and Scuola Normale in Pisa, Bocconi and the Polytechnics of Milan and Turin, Luiss in Rome and Federico II in Naples, etc. Excellence, both for Humanities and Scientific knowledge, for Engineering and Architecture, Design and Art. Primates to insist on, to continue to invest in teaching and research, the enhancement of experience and the attitude to innovation.

The reference horizon is that of “Polytechnic Culture,” an original Italian dimension that knows how to hold together Humanistic and Scientific knowledge and on which companies can also continue to leverage, to improve the competitiveness of their products and services in particularly selective international markets.

To put it in a few words: Education must focus on knowledge rather than skills for it is knowledge that enables one to know what to do, how to do it and why. They are, precisely, the fruit of a widespread Polytechnic Culture, that is, one that is capable of fusing technological innovation, as an outcome of scientific research, and a taste for beauty, as an expression of humanistic knowledge. And thus reveal the essence of doing Italian business.

This was discussed in recent days in Trento at “CamLab: dialogues on enterprise and innovation,” an initiative of the Chamber of Commerce insisting that in a large open country like Italy, simultaneously competitive and inclusive, training should be conceived as a supply chain process, a network that invests all the businesses that revolve around a product. The skill of doing and the commitment to “doing knowledge,” that is, to build a new narrative of resourcefulness, creativity and productivity.

On the other hand, in the etymological root of “compete”, there is the idea of striving together toward a goal: economic and social growth, with widespread value production, in companies and territories. And therefore with an attractiveness for investment and quality people, for ideas and knowledge carriers. That is why training can only be an effort that must mobilize businesses, politics and trade associations. And the lever of advantageous taxation must be used more, to stimulate businesses, territories, and associations to invest in knowledge, precisely in training. Educational and professional training and long-term lifelong learning, as the business management manuals say.

The reasoning goes back to Universities and the records revealed by Qs Ranking. Following the assessments of Francesco Profumo, former Rector of the Polytechnic University of Turin, former Minister of Education and former President of the CNR and of the  Compagna di San Paolo: “We are in a historical phase in which there is a need to hybridize knowledge. We have realized, fortunately, that the results of technology alone are not enough. We need a more ’rounded’ vision that has ethical, social and humanistic components. In this respect, our culture has deep roots that certainly need to be incorporated into today’s modernity. Last year was the centenary of the Gentile reform and also we celebrated the 60th anniversary of the birth of the single Middle School. We are a very interesting country that other cultures look to.”

Profumo is precisely right when he argues that “the cultural model in which we find ourselves together with Germany and France, even regardless of the individual positions in the rankings, is current and modern, and the Qs Ranking demonstrates this. The central theme is that these countries have preserved a tradition while the Anglo-Saxon world is more tuned to immediacy. We focus on knowledge, they on skills, which, however, become obsolete faster and need to be revised and regenerated from time to time. Knowledge, on the other hand, is a real and lasting value for the people who possess it.

The challenge is political, of long-term choices both national and European. And while it is true that Europe, in this difficult season of major geopolitical conflicts, has an unfortunately marginal weight, it is precisely the EU’s insistence on culture, knowledge, and education that can restore our role and quality of participation.

by Antonio Calabrò

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